SummerWorks: Forgotten women’s voices emerge from the asylum in the remarkable, haunting Audible Songs from Rockwood

Simone Schmidt. Photo by Jeff Bierk.

 

Fiver brings a remarkable piece of musical storytelling to the stage with Audible Songs from Rockwood, written by Simone Schmidt, created by Schmidt, Shannon Lea Doyle and Frank Cox-O’Connell, and directed by Cox-O’Connell—running in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre. Based on the album of the same name, Schmidt has brought to life the voices of 10 women who were incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1856 and 1881, taking us on a music accompanied history tour of these women’s lives and experiences at Rockwood—while drawing on issues of colonialism, patriarchy and mental health.

Staged as a piece of solo storytelling theatre, Schmidt shares her inspiration and research—of Rockwood and its inmates, and of Upper Canada law and general history of the time—in between songs, as she draws parallels between colonialism, and the system of white Protestant patriarchy that ruled the land and made property of wives and daughters. Inspired by the experiences of 10 women incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane, and incorporating two years of research from the case files and ledgers of the facility, Schmidt has created a series of song portraits. Put away by fathers, husbands or the authorities for out of wedlock sexual activity and being “man-obsessed”, melancholia, paranoia over land theft or spousal infidelity, or going incognito (one woman fabricated a life under an assumed name as a single woman from down south, when she was married to a local man), these women were subject to harsh conditions, initially housed in the stables of the former estate as the facility was under construction to house the overflow of mentally ill inmates from Kingston Penitentiary. Silenced and forgotten, some were left there for years after they were deemed fit to return home, their families inquiring about them but not bothering to make the journey to take them back.

Inmates were confined, forced into silence, and subjected to hard labour and cruel punishments for breaking the rules. Lack of funding for mental health shut down plans for more advanced, humane treatment at the facility; moral treatment, based on a Quaker model, whereby patients would have freedom to move about, and be given useful tasks to perform around the facility, like cleaning, cooking or gardening. Lack of funds also meant the facility had insufficient heating in winter, forcing inmates to huddle together for warmth as the contents of their chamber pots froze.

Haunting and mournful, lyrical yet matter of fact, the Appalachian folk-inspired music captures the essence of women whose lives were forever changed; silenced and policed in a harsh penal/mental health system—the stories in the facility documents were essentially told by the male doctors and police officers involved with each case. Schmidt’s vocals are earthy, deep and soulful; accompanied by Laura Bates on fiddle and Carlie Howell on double bass, in addition to back-up vocals/harmonies. Schmidt is well-aware of the possible issue of appropriation of voice here; and she wondered out loud if it’s right for her to tell these stories that aren’t really hers to tell. But if not for her songs—developed through respectful and painstaking research—who would be telling the stories of these troubled, silenced and forgotten women?

The “Audible” in the title may seem redundant, but Audible Songs from Rockwood are the songs of the hearts, souls and minds of women who otherwise would have had no voice.

Audible Songs from Rockwood continues, with three more performances, in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre until August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

Toronto Fringe: Into the mouth of the sea lion with the absurd surreal sketch comedy of Swallowed Whole

Carly Telford, Chris O’Bray & Raechel Fisher. Photo by Laura-Kate Dymond.

 

Irrelephant Productions takes us into the mouth of the sea lion for 55 minutes of absurd sketch comedy, peppered with drag performance and social satire in the wacky, surreal Swallowed Whole, written and directed by Rachel Perry, and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

Sketch comedy trio Chris O’Bray, Raechel Fisher and Carly Telford take us through a series of comedic, sometimes bizarre, scenarios: a cooking show for poor people, hosted by O’Bray in old lady drag; and a pair of entitled, dick-obsessed slackers (Fisher and Telford in drag) get broromantic to the tune of You Don’t Bring Me Flowers—returning later with O’Bray in a three-man boy band. There’s the misadventures of Calvin (O’Bray), who finds himself trapped in the oddest places—and his pissed of (recent) ex (Fisher), Olive Garden manager (Fisher), and even his mom (Telford) and dad (Fisher) refuse to help. And then there’s the Ouija Board Dating Game, where bachelorette Demi (Fisher) poses a series of compatibility questions to three dead celebrity bachelors (Telford, O’Bray and a surprise guest).

Shouts to the cast for going all-out in their commitment to character and outrageous antics. Telford and Fisher are especially funny as the two slacker bros; and O’Bray’s cooking lady is something of a low-rent Julia Child. And nice work from the trio on the boy band harmonies!

It’s a mad, mad work of bizarre wacky times. And you can wash it all down with a Dougie Ford Buck a Beer beer while you bop your head to the music and marvel at humanity’s endless quirks.

Swallowed Whole continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse for two more performances: July 13 at 6:45 and July 14 at 8:00; check the show page for advance tickets.

Toronto Fringe: Coping with loss & freeing the stories in the enchanting, playful adventure Through the Bamboo

Carolyn Fe & ensemble. Set design by Nina Lee Aquino & Farnoosh Talebpour. Costume design by Farnoosh Talebpour. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Lyon Smith.

 

The Uwi Collective presents a Philippine mythology-inspired adventure in storytelling in the enchanting, playful, poignant Through the Bamboo, running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace. Written by Andrea Mapili and Byron Abalos; directed by Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Mapili; and with music direction by Maddie Bautista, we follow the reluctant hero’s journey of a young girl as she seeks to free her Lola (grandma) from a strange, faraway land ruled by Three Sisters who have outlawed storytelling.

Philly (Angela Rosete) is sad and angry; her beloved Lola (Carolyn Fe) has died and her family is packing Lola’s things all wrong. When she discovers Lola’s favourite story book Through the Bamboo, she also finds Lola’s malong (a multi-purpose Philippine garment, worn here as a sash) tucked inside. She puts the malong on, and it comes to life, whisking her away to Uwi, ruled by Three Sisters—Isa (Karen Ancheta, who also plays Philly’s mom), Dalawa (Marie Beath Badian) and Tatlo (Joy Castro)—who have banished storytelling from the land.

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Marie Beath Badian, Karen Ancheta & Joy Castro. Set design by Nina Lee Aquino & Farnoosh Talebpour. Costume design by Farnoosh Talebpour. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Lyon Smith.

Upon her arrival, Philly is greeted by the villagers as the one foretold in a prophecy who will free them from their oppression at the hands of the Sisters. All she wants to do is go home, but when she visits Matalino the seer (Nicco Lorenzo Garcia) and learns that Lola is there, she partners with two stalwart allies, Giting (Lana Carillo) and Ipakita (Ericka Leobrera), to find her. Along the way, they are assisted by mythical creatures: the sea creature Koyo (Anthony Perpuse), made mute by the Sisters’ magic; and the trickster forest creature Kapre (Perpuse). And all the while, they are pursued by the Sisters’ spy, the formidable flying Ekek, and the fierce horseman solider General T (both played by John Echano). Will Philly be able to save Lola—and is she really who everyone thinks she is? Will the Sisters maintain their vice-like grip on the land, where even memories—which constitute stories—are forbidden?

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Angela Rosete, Lana Carillo & Ericka Leobrera. Set design by Nina Lee Aquino & Farnoosh Talebpour. Costume design by Farnoosh Talebpour. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Lyon Smith.

It’s a big fun, fantastic ride for all ages as everyday household items and moving boxes transform into a variety of magical creature costumes, props (shouts to props master Farnoosh Talebpour) and places: tennis rackets become Ekek’s wings, a wicker rocking horse transforms into General T, and swimming noodles become bamboo stalks. And lovely, imaginative, high-energy performances from the cast as they shift from our everyday world to the magical world of Uwi.

Rosete brings a feisty fierceness to the strong-willed Philly; hurt and angry, and missing her Lola, her determination and resilience make her a true hero. Fe gives a beautiful, gentle and touching performance as Lola; at first confused and disoriented in her earthly dementia state, Lola’s memory returns, revealing great power and strength. Great comic turns from the Sisters Ancheta, Beath Badian and Castro—reminiscent of the three sisters in the movie Stardust, who age whenever they use their power. Garcia makes for a jolly wise man as Matalino, adding a playful Yoda-like quality to the wisdom. Echano is both comic and intimidating as the flying spy Ekek, bringing to mind the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz; then all menace as the merciless horseback soldier General T. And Perpuse is adorable and puck-like as the mute sea-dwelling Koyo, who must communicate with gestures; and as the mischievous forest-dwelling Kapre, renowned for playing tricks.

A reminder that stories are how we connect, how we remember loved ones we’ve lost—and important tools for working through the grief of that loss. You may find yourself feeling like a kid at story time, and maybe even brushing away a tear or two at the end (I know I did).

Through the Bamboo continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace for three more performances: July 11 at 2:30, July 13 at 6:15 and July 14 at 12:00; visit the show page to book advance tickets online. Definitely book in advance, as these guys have been selling out.